Hollywood Reporter Reveals 2014 Producers of the Year
Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller's company Platinum Dunes produced three films grossing $660 million worldwide this year alone, including 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'; the trio open up to THR about dealing with "cagey" directors, their toughest decisions and what to do when an actress quits over a nude scene mid-shoot
This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Michael Bay was trying to come up with a good name for his new short film. It was 1988 and he had been doing graduate work at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena when a friend brought Bay's quandary to the attention of Oliver Stone. The Platoon director glanced at a list of titles Bay had supplied and zeroed in on one. "He said, 'Platinum Dunes! That's a great f—ing title!' " recalls Bay.
Cut to 13 years later. It was 2001, Bay had become one of Hollywood's top directors, and he and his two partners, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, were trying to think up a name for their brand-new production company. Why not Platinum Dunes, they wondered?
Since that moment, Dunes has taken its place as one of the most prolific small companies in the business, with credits ranging from 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to 2013's microbudget The Purge. (Platinum is not involved with Bay's Transformers series.)
After making their mark with horror films, the longtime friends (Bay, 49, and Fuller, 49, met at Wesleyan University in Middleton, Conn.; Form, 45, worked with Bay while an executive at Simpson-Bruckheimer Films) have moved on to much bigger movies, including their biggest ever: this year's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which to date has grossed $477.2 million worldwide and already has a sequel in the works. Platinum Dunes also has become active in television, with two ongoing cable series, TNT's The Last Ship — which premiered in June and became the No. 2 new cable show of the year — and Starz's Black Sails.
Jason Blum, who produces the Purge franchise with them (a third outing is in the works), says the three partners draw on deep relationships with some exceptional below-the-line talent and apply their quest for verite to every detail. That includes making sure the bullets inside a gun looked right for a close-up on the first Purge. "They could see the bullets were fake — and I couldn't," says Blum. "They know that what's scary tends to be what's authentic."
While keeping a toe in the low-budget and even microbudget arena, the producers clearly are eyeing more and bigger projects, which is exactly what Paramount, their home studio, wants. "What our team plans to do is help them expand beyond the horror genre, in addition to expanding the Transformers franchise," says Paramount chairman Brad Grey, who in July re-upped Platinum's deal with the studio and signed a new pact with Bay. "We're fortunate to be in business with them as we look to make between three and five tentpole movies each year."
With three films out in 2014 alone (Turtles, The Purge: Anarchy and Ouija), which grossed a total of $660 million worldwide, Bay, Form and Fuller are The Hollywood Reporter's 2014 Producers of the Year. They sat down with THR on Dec. 8 in their Santa Monica offices to talk about the highs of the past year and the road forward.
Why did you decide to open your own company?
MICHAEL BAY (pictured at right) I didn't want to be a director-for-hire.
And I wanted to expand. The philosophy was: Let's make a company that will focus on small fare, where the movie could be the star and we could bring young directors and help them out — low-budget, do it for a price and insulate them from the studio. But the philosophy had to grow and change. We're working with much more seasoned people; we wanted to get into TV.
How did the first Platinum Dunes movie, the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, come about?
BRAD FULLER I had made two movies with Graham Taylor, who's now the head of independent at William Morris Endeavor. And Graham said, "[Producer] Mike Fleiss is looking for someone to make Texas Chainsaw Massacre with him."
BAY Then I heard, and I said, "Let me come up with an idea." I'd gone to Imagineering at Disney, and there was one room where it was all about sound. It was an amazing place. And I created a pure-sound trailer, sound [with no images] all around the theater. It was two minutes, and it was terrifying. I had my Academy Award-winning mixers. We [showed] it at CAA; we brought in a bunch of studios; we sold it in the room before one word was written, for seven million bucks.
FULLER (pictured at left) Just based on that trailer and an idea to remake it. No script, no writer, no nothing. Michael kept saying, "Make it visceral. Let's go hardcore, and let's do a real hardcore horror movie." And that's what we tried to do. But closing the rights was a challenge. It took months and months. There were three people who owned them — one was Tobe Hooper [the director]. That was their baby, and it was hard to get them to give it up. But we got them to do so and made two Chainsaw movies; and then the [original rights holders] were smart: After our movies, they made another Chainsaw movie on their own last year.
The Purge started off with Jason Blum, right?
ANDREW FORM The genesis was: We had come off making [the 2010 remake of] Nightmare on Elm Street, which was for us a fairly expensive horror movie [$25 million]. And our phone really stopped ringing because we were living in a world where we were making $15 million-and-up genre films when the lower-budget genre films had started, and we weren't adapting. The crazy thing about being in Hollywood is that no one comes to you and says, "You're cold right now." No one tells you. Your phone just stops ringing.
BAY We went to Paramount [in October 2009] and then they stopped believing in the horror movie. Our doors almost got shuttered because they stopped believing in horror.
FORM So things were slow and we reached out to Jason. We had seen an early cut of Paranormal Activity and we said, "He's making movies. He's doing what we essentially were doing." And we sat down with him, and he said, "I have this script. Tell me what you think." It was called Vigilandia, but it was all about The Purge, and eventually The Purge was its [title]. But Brad and I looked at each other and said, "How do you make a $3 million movie?"
FULLER We had no money at all. With every other movie, you have at least a tiny bit of money to throw at a problem — on Chainsaw, we had four visual effects shots, and something like $50,000 to do them. On Purge, we had nothing! We could not go on any locations: We could only shoot inside that house and outside the house. The whole country is going through the purge, and we couldn't even show one shot. It defines what making a movie in a box is like.
Now you have Black Sails shooting in South Africa and Last Ship shooting in San Diego. Michael, how involved with these projects do you get?
BAY I'm mostly based in Miami — I've got a central command at my house where I have [a line that goes directly from] ILM to the Cisco TelePresence to the Avids, so I can access all this information, anything that they're working on. I'll get with the production designer, and I've said, "You've got to dirty it up, you've got to texture, texture, texture." I can give very fast notes. And these guys are very good at executing that.
FULLER We've been doing this a long time together. I gravitated toward Black Sails and Drew gravitated more toward Last Ship, so he was down in San Diego, and I was in Cape Town. Oh my God, that was difficult. We built one full pirate ship and then another three-quarter ship — there's no back on it — and it took five months to build these ships. When we started shooting, our ships weren't ready. We were making a pirate show without pirate ships! And we also had to build a tank to put the ships in. Logistically, it was a nightmare. But at the end of the day, it was astonishing.
Read more 'Ninja Turtles 2' in the Works
What do you like most about producing and what do you like least?
BAY Well, I don't like having to fly to a set and sit a director down. Like one time, three days [into a shoot], literally the entire crew was quitting. So I had to call the director, and I said, "Listen, we're going to fire you unless you apologize to the crew right now. Do you know what I'm saying?" We know these professionals, and it's like, "We're going to keep the crew, we're not going to keep you." He apologized, and he was a dream after that. Here's the deal: Directors are always cagey. You never know what you get until you're actually on the set. One director came and said, "This is how I want to do the film." And he shows us a sizzle reel of all the tone, the feel, like a rip-o-matic: He would take other movies, stuff that he'd shot, and it gave the look, feel. And when I'm watching dailies, and they're [all shooting] way across the country, not one of those shots or the feel is in there. [With another horror film, the director said,] "I just realized: It's not a scary movie, it's a family drama." And I'm like, "OK. I remember it as scary." Those sit-downs are uncomfortable. But most of the time, it's great.
FULLER One director wanted extra money to shoot the finale, and he got very angry and threw his cellphone against the wall on set. I asked him to come back to the office, and he picked up the phone on the desk and threw that, too.
FORM (pictured at right) I don't like the unknown. I remember one movie: We started shooting at night — which you don't usually like to do. And the second night, we get to a scene that requires nudity from an actress. And we'd never worked with nudity before. Our casting director told us, "When you're auditioning, the actor has to say on camera that they're comfortable with that." So we book the actress, she comes out to the set in Texas — and we start to shoot and the actress starts to feel uncomfortable. She left the movie, she just quit, and that put me in a horrible position. I have one more night in this location! I've lost my actress! And one actor says, "I have a friend who's an actress who might want to do this." It's three or four in the morning. Somehow, she gets the email in Los Angeles and goes into casting the next day and by 3 p.m. she's on a plane to Texas — and she did a great job. But we still have the back of the head of the original actress in the scene.
From left: Form, Fuller and Bay posed at the L.A. premiere afterparty for their 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which grossed $107.1 million worldwide.
Are there any other particularly tough moments that stand out?
BAY There was someone in a studio where I said, "Listen, in my movies, I write my own action, OK?" And I wrote the scene, and the studio person said, "What makes you think this is going to be good?" And I said, "You know, I got a pretty good gut." And he goes, "Well, I don't believe you." And I walked out of the room.
FORM We were shooting a night shoot. And by the end of the night, everyone was really testy and tired. And the director locked himself inside a car with a camera. We had worked 18 hours. And the director is shooting inserts. And he would not come out of the car. So I just went to the Teamsters and I said, "Guys, can you pull the generator?" And they shut it off and every light and everything went off. And then the director came out. In that moment, the director took his shirt off. He threw it on the ground, and he was stomping on it.
BAY I remember when they pulled the generator on me when I was working with Will Smith [on Bad Boys] and they shut the lights down. That director will remember it for the rest of his life.
FULLER Michael has this divining rod for where the problems are going to be. On Turtles, I don't think we had the right tone. Our original cut was more of a brooding action movie, maybe for an older audience. It's hard to tell the tone in dailies because you can have fun scenes, but when you put the whole thing together, there's an overwhelming emotion you get [that may be different from what you expected].
At what point did you realize the tone was wrong?
BAY When they came to Miami to show me the first cut. We went out to dinner after I saw it, and it was a very civil dinner [with] the director and editor and [VFX supervisor]. So we're having a steak dinner, we have a martini each — and I'm texting Drew. Then he goes to the bathroom. I go to the bathroom. He's at the urinal and [I say], "We are in so much f—ing trouble!" I write Paramount, "Guys, we have a serious problem. We need funny writers right now. Because the pipeline has to keep going." We really had to get that tone right. It was dicey.
Do you get final cut?
BAY We're a final-cut production company. If it's a seasoned veteran, I'm not going to step on their toes. It's their thing. But we listen to the audience. We had a tussle with a studio where they wanted another ending on Elm Street [that] left it very ambiguous, right? It didn't work. And my gut's telling me: wrong. And I'm like, "Let's do a bake-off. Same night, two theaters, 300 people each." And their ending was 10 points below ours.
FORM There was about 15 seconds' difference in the entire movie.
BAY I respect what the audience is saying. I respect that they're having trouble comprehending something. On Transformers, there was something we couldn't gauge in movie three, something in the ending, and, believe it or not, it was the music, because it was too nostalgic, it was too melodic. And it took all this deducing that the music was trying to be emotional when it needed to be heroic, kick-ass. And it literally swung the audience. Movies are made to be seen. You don't have to respect everything [an audience] is feeling, but there's certain things where they will really guide you.
Michael and Andrew, you both worked for Jerry Bruckheimer. What did he teach you?
BAY The politics of navigating. He said, "Listen, everyone at these studios, they're not going to be there in three to five years, OK?"
FORM He said, "Every chair is rented. And don't ever forget that." And he said, "You'll be amazed when people forget that their chairs are rented. Watch."
BAY You learned the production politics from Jerry. You learned the creative, the gut feeling from [Bruckheimer's late partner, Don Simpson] — though apparently it didn't work out so well on Bad Boys. It was the Saturday before I was going to shoot my first movie, and he was famous for notes, and he brought in 65 pages of notes, slammed it right in front of Jerry, and said, "Jerry, this script sucks, we're taking our names off this picture." And I saw my whole career go down the tube. I was 27. He gives us the notes. He was right on so many accounts. [But] we had $10,000 to do a rewrite. We were able to hire one writer, and his deal was [while he was on location] writing, he had to be able to golf every single day in Florida. It was my first movie. Then Don and Jerry left to go do their real movie, Crimson Tide.
Since then, how has the business changed in a way that impacts you?
FULLER For a long time, we thought a low-budget horror movie was $15 million or $10 million. That was the world we were living in. And then a few years ago, we made The Purge for $2.7 million. Now there are movies under $10 million, or there are big tentpole movies. And that's it.
BAY It's tough. I'm working on 13 Hours [adapted from the book by Mitchell Zuckoff]. It's about these ex-Special Forces who were working for the CIA; they were just contractors and they got a call from the embassy [in Benghazi] that it was under attack. [They were told] "If you don't get here, we're all going to die." It's from their point of view. But [Paramount and I] are haggling over money — though we always haggle, you know?
What's your greatest challenge going forward?
FULLER Changing economics — and the fact that the audience for these movies is global. When my grandfather [Sherrill Corwin] was making movies in the 1970s, his audience was distinctly American. He made The Poseidon Adventure [as an uncredited executive producer], and movies then were in theaters for six months at a time and regionally released; and now they open on 3,000 screens and you have to think of China and Russia and Mexico and Brazil. By the way, the movie business changed everything for my family — we were living in a tiny house; I shared a room with my parents; and then when Poseidon did well, that allowed my grandfather to help my parents get a loan so that they could buy a bigger house. It had a really important impact on me.
BAY The biggest challenge now is expanding. How are we going to expand and then do it successfully? We're doing some bigger, four-quadrant type movies. We want to do more TV. And we're now growing at an exponential rate, and how do we keep our claws in all of it, and how do we keep creative control? We've always been very protective of the people who work with us. And just how do you keep that quality control going? I don't know how we did all that work last year — and then I was doing Transformers as well.
Are you going to direct Transformers 5?
BAY Oh, you want the Transformers story? The only story I know about Transformers is that I'm going to help. We need to have some sort of writer think-tank if they want to keep this franchise going, to try to figure out a plan. But that's it. I'm not committed to anything, you know? I'm interested in a lot of other stuff right now. I've been offered a couple of these midrange-budget movies that are interesting to me. It's hard when you go from a Transformers to another large-sized movie. It's two years of your life. It's a major grind when you work with 4,000 people, and it's a massive undertaking.
You all love many types of film. Can you name one in particular that really influenced you?
FULLER Star Wars. I saw it at the Avco [in Westwood] with my father. I was probably 12 years old. I just couldn't believe what I had witnessed, and I wondered, "How did that happen?" It was so much bigger and better than anything I had seen.
BAY Raiders of the Lost Ark, because as a 15-year-old kid I filed Raiders of the Lost Ark storyboards. I worked at Lucasfilm, filing, working in the library as a librarian. I was saving up for a car. So I had this job and I literally got all the storyboards from London, and I was filing them in order. And the true story is, I told my 15-year-old friends, "Spielberg's doing this movie called Raiders. It's going to suck." But I saw it at the Chinese Theatre — and it didn't suck.
FORM When I was 13, my parents took me to see E.T. And in my town, Wantagh, Long Island, we had a stand-alone theater, and it was the only movie playing there. I thought I was this tough 13-year-old kid, and I cried. And I could not believe the experience affected me that way.